Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Interview with Kristin Johnson, co-director The Taste of Sunrise


Having been born Deaf to hearing parents, WFT Inclusion Coordinator Kristin Johnson has a special perspective on accommodating people with disabilities or additional needs.  As co-director of The Taste of Sunrise she also has a unique take on aspects of the drama that focus on the hearing child of Deaf adults (CODA)—her daughter, Ingrid, is a CODA. (See Ingrid’s reflections later in this study guide.)

What do you do as Inclusion Coordinator?

Are you familiar with AD -  Audio Description? People who have any kind of visual limitations or are blind are able to come and listen to what is happening on stage, which is narrated to them by an AD team - this may include a description of the set, what the characters are wearing, what they look like, what they are doing. They can hear that through a headset so it does not interfere with the spoken dialogue. AD typically describes what is happening during some kind of down time on stage, filling in all of the gaps; it doesn't, of course, include the dialogue itself.  So the AD team typically will have a script ready and they will just read live to the people who are wearing the headsets. AD and the ASL team are very similar in what they have to do. They have to prepare their work well in advance to provide the accessibility.

The open caption system is very similar. Open captioning has to be preprogrammed in a computer.  The script that the actors are using is put into the system. They have a laptop set up that this program runs on. And the open caption operator (typically a Wheelock College student) will listen to the characters for their lines, and they will hit a button that lines up the captioning that shows up on the sides of the stage. And so they will time it up nicely.  It is not a live captioning system. The operator who is there sure is live, but they have input all the information beforehand.

Now with the ASL interpretation that is a live sign language performance, something they have practiced long in advance. The AD system as well is a live person reading their script, something they have prepared beforehand. Those three things are what I’m involved in coordinating.

Is this unique to Wheelock Family Theatre?

Yes. The services that WFT provide have been ongoing for 34 years.  They are very loyal and very committed to providing accessible theatre. All of the services that are included are very visible to everyone who comes. They aren’t hidden at the back of the house or the side, so everyone can see the accessibility we are providing. For The Taste of Sunrise we actually have our captioning system right there in the center of the stage, not off to the side.  The interpreters will be on stage with the actors. It’s wonderful. And Wendy has been so supportive of our services. She’s very involved in the inclusivity we provide. It’s just what we have been talking about – this one world of inclusion, of deafness, blindness, everything. Some other directors, other theatres really like to keep things separate. Not Wheelock.

Have you directed or co-directed a play before?

I direct my own ASL team. I have been the director of our ASL performers. But I have never been a director for the whole cast. But it’s truly an honor to be able to work with Wendy.  She is someone who has been mentoring me. And she is my ears in this, and I am her eyes. So it’s such a perfect combination of the two of us.

What sort of things will you do as a co-director of this production?

The set we are using is a raked stage. And we have both been really involved in trying to figure out what we are doing for specific trap doors. We are adding real dirt, gravel. We are using real water. We are trying to do something with a little bit of fire. As well as lighting design -- whether we need certain moments to be warm, cool. I’m also involved in designing what the actual rake will look like. Right now we’ve decided on wooden planks. There is a Deaf artist named James Castle. He was an artist during the Depression. We’ve taken a lot of his moods, his textures that he used back then, and we’ve really incorporated them into the show. It fits very nicely.

Also, we have been influenced by how Deaf people used to react during audiological exams. You know there is an old instrument called a tuning fork. A Deaf person would sit there and an audiologist would ring it and put it all over their head. And if it is your first time experiencing something like that it’s very traumatic.  Of course it’s something these people had to go through over and over again, with always the same result. They’re still Deaf at the end of the appointment. But these kinds of things are something that I, as a co-director, bring to the table, this bit of perspective that someone who is not Deaf would not have.

Were your parents Deaf or hearing?

Both of my parents were hearing. Ninety percent of Deaf people have hearing parents. Within that group of Deaf people, 10 percent will have Deaf children, but 90 percent will have hearing children. My own daughter is one of the 90 percent of the CODAs that you will see. It’s a misunderstanding that a Deaf person will always have a Deaf child. And really it’s such a small amount. Ten percent.

How does this play speak to you?

I’ve been working with Amanda Collins, who plays Maizie.  I love and hate this character Maizie.  I love her because she does so much for Tuc. And Tuc, he comes from a very clueless home with very limited communication and very little social background, whereas Maizie has access. She has access to movie palaces, she has access to the hearing world – everything that’s spoken – and she also has access to her parents through sign language, whereas Tuc has nothing, except communicating with the birds, the wind, and the water.  And having those two characters together, where Maizie introduces Tuc to the world—I’m so grateful for that in her character. Tuc does try to prove to Maizie that two worlds are OK. But it’s a pretty big conflict. So yes, Maizie is a young girl, she’s sixteen, and she has the mind of a child. I do understand her desire to experience the world before she is tied down with a baby.

And you have Tuc’s father, who winds up passing in the show. And that is something I’ve also experienced, that grief of losing a parent. And Tuc is put into the Deaf School, a whole new experience for him, which is something I experienced as well. When I was four years old I was put into a residential program where I slept overnight. So I have a lot of ties to all of these characters. I can relate to almost all of them.

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